FILMS I WATCHED IN 2020, THE YEAR OF OUR PANDEMIC: PART 2

The sources I use to watch film are those on my shelf, Kanopy, occasionally Netflix or Prime, and if I’m really keen on seeing something I can view nowhere else but on YouTube, I’ll watch it there.  The problem is that so many of the films found on YouTube are of really poor quality.

Back during our first lockdown, probably because it featured Preston Foster, I decided to watch a lovely DVD I had of Annie Oakley (1935), directed by George Stevens and starring Barbara Stanwyck.  You can rarely  go wrong with a Stanwyck film, especially when she’s so young and lovely.  I can’t imagine that Annie Oakley’s life had much to do with its depiction here, but it was entertaining, even if fictional, and it’s always nice to see Stanwyck playing a strong woman who still knows how to make a man feel, well, manly.  If you’re a Melvin Douglas fan, you’ll also find him here.  Betty Hutton also took a turn at playing Oakley in the 1950 Annie Get Your Gun but because I had recently seen her in Incendiary Blonde (1945) as Texas Guinan, I thought that there were similarities in the story line, and for an instant mixing the two stories up in my mind.

Since my son and I were spending more time together, I tried to choose films where the subject matter would resonate with him.  It had been many, many years since I saw Dr. Strangelove (1964) and I chose it because I thought it would help the mood to watch something that shows us that things could be worse than being alive during a world pandemic, and that up until our day of watching, the current President of the United States hadn’t caused a nuclear war, accidental or otherwise.  It’s interesting how the memory plays constant tricks on us.  For some reason, without bothering to look at the most iconic photo from that film, instead of Slim Pickens riding the bomb, I imagined it was Peter Sellers.  Sellers plays three roles, but it was Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott who had me laughing with incredulity.

I went to Kanopy to watch a film whose synopsis caught my interest, Ms. 45 (1981) about a mute, timid seamstress who, after being attacked and raped twice in one day, uses the pistol of her last assailant to become a vigilante.  However, she goes insane and then off the deep end in her pursuit of “evil” men.  I had lived in New York around the time this was filmed, and I could recognize the era.  Besides enjoying the film, I especially liked the music during the party scene near the end.

Also on Kanopy, I watched The Silent Partner (1978), a film, as far as I can recall, I had never seen before.  Such a good film and so Canadian!  Elliott Gould was quite charming and believable as the clever and introverted teller who is romantically interested in Susannah York, who was rather ordinary in this role.  Christopher Plummer’s scenes were the ones I most looked forward to.  He is stunning, playing a character quite opposite of the one he played in The Sound of Music (1965).  I was kind of surprised to see that the Eaton Centre was up and running in 1978.  Of course, that made sense as it has been there since I was in my late teens, but without thinking about it, I just assumed it had been built more recently.  I still remember the lovely old Eatons and Simpsons of my childhood, the kind of department stores you see in films built well before the 1950s.  Anyway, it was such fun to recognize all these Toronto landmarks.  They even used real Toronto street names in the script.  A clever little thriller, and risqué use of frontal nudity, only don’t blink if you’re waiting for it.  There are a couple of iconic Canadians to look out for; John Candy and Jack Duffy.

I watched a few silent films, The Moon of Israel (1924), a film directed by Michael Curtiz before he came to the US and under one of his European aliases, Michael Courtice.  It was a revamped retelling of Exodus and it was quite entertaining, with great costumes, the parting of the Red Sea and a Joan-of-Arc ending.  I had had it on my shelf for a few years, but I was reminded to watch it while reading Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years by Cari Bauchamp because at one point he (or rather his company) owned the rights to the film and was doing very good business at home and in Europe.  I would say that the storyline does not quite faithfully follow the story as written in the Torah, and was highly amused by the liberties taken.

I next watched Constance Talmadge (and Ronald Colman) in Her Sister From Paris (1925) where you get two Constances for the price of one.  Constance, as you may know, is the younger sister of Norma Talmadge, who was probably the bigger movie star of the two.  They had a third sister Natalie, the least famous since she made very few films, and mostly known for being the first wife of Buster Keaton.  Anyway, years ago at an Eastman House screening, we saw The Duchess of Buffalo, which was most likely the first time I had ever seen Constance in a film and I thought she was such fun.  Not quite as “pretty” as her older sister, but certainly better as a comedienne, I then read a book about the sisters by Anita Loos called The Talmadge Girls: A Memoir.  I don’t remember much, but it figures that only something disparaging stuck with me, that they liked indulging in cocaine.  George K. Arthur, an actor I’ve seen in a few films, mostly silent, played the pal in his usual comic style.  Anyway, what was the film about?  It was an amusing comedy about a husband and wife (Colman and Talmadge) who are having marital difficulties.  When Constance’s famous identical twin sister comes to town, the fun begins.

Being on a silent roll, I watched The Last Laugh (1924) and although I thought it was a beautiful looking film—great sets and cinematography—the story was very simple and stretched out.  Emil Jannings’ acted believably as a 65- or 70-year old man, but he also overacted, which might have partially been what the director, Murnau, wanted.  I do like Murnau’s films, or rather, I like to watch films directed by Murnau even if there’s faults with them.  This is due to the fact that he directed Sunrise (1927), which is such a gorgeous film in every way.  (Later on, I watched another Murnau but it will be in a future post.)  The ending to the The Last Laugh felt tacked on, just to make it into a feel-good movie.  Otherwise, it was a fantasy in the character’s mind.

Again, I tried to come up with films to watch with my son and decided on the following:  I had seen Ex Machina (2014) when it was in the theatres and found this sci-fi story really worked for me.  Around the time I chose this for us to watch together, we had both read Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow and I thought Ex Machina fit right into the ideas expressed in Harari’s book.  In case you haven’t seen the film, it’s about a young IT guy, working for a big company (think Google, Facebook, et al) who, after winning a contest, is brought to work on a study for the company’s owner in his secluded home/office in the middle of nowhere.  The boss is working on creating AI robots that can pass as humans.  Things go awry.  The three lead actors, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander were perfect in their roles.

We then watched Inherit the Wind (1960), a film I had only seen once before, remembering that I thought it was fabulous.  And it still is.  A wonderful script given to two great actors, Spencer Tracy and Fredric March as the dueling attorneys in this 1925 rendition of “The Monkey Trials”.  Interestingly, famous lawyer Clarence Darrow defended the high school teacher, John Scopes, yet in the film Tracy, who played this lawyer, went under the fictional name Henry Drummond.  Although not in the same fame caliber, that also goes for March’s character, lawyer William Jennings Bryan who became Matthew Harrison Brady.  Since I don’t know why, I found it odd as the story and characters were mostly similar to the real-life men and events when reading about the times.

Keeping with the year 1925 and its theme, evangelicalism, I thought my son might be interested in seeing Elmer Gantry (also made in 1960) with Burt Lancaster playing a somewhat kind-hearted huckster who falls into the evangelical business.  Not as good a film as Inherit the Wind, perhaps because it was based on a fictional story by Sinclair Lewis, nor was it as good as our follow-up Lancaster film, Birdman of Alcatraz which was made only two years later (1962) where he convincingly plays a very different character, that of real life Robert Stroud.  Stroud was a convicted murderer, sentenced to life in prison without parole after having his sentence of execution commuted by President Woodrow Wilson.  I read a bit more about Stroud after viewing the film and recall that one of many small differences was that he started becoming interested in birds when he discovered three—not one—chicks in the outdoor courtyard during a heavy rainstorm.  It’s always an incredible story when someone with something like a grade 3 education (I can’t find the original article I read awhile ago so I may be wrong about when he dropped out of school), leaving his majorly dysfunctional home at the age of 13, was so brilliant.  At the age of 18, he murders a barman who fails to pay for services for Stroud’s maybe girlfriend Kitty O’Brien who is a dance hall entertainer/prostitute, and who Stroud is also acting as pimp for.  Once in prison, he murders a guard, who, because he was going to take away Stroud’s visitation with his younger brother (in the film it’s his mother played by the always watchable Thelma Ritter) over some minor infraction, is again close to being executed.  In some articles, it mentions that Stroud may have been autistic and/or gay and with this in mind, his one marriage, which is portrayed in the film with Betty Field in the role, kind of makes probable sense.  Telly Savalas stands out in his role as inmate Feto Gomez.  It was an appropriate film to watch during Covid lockdown, bringing home that we could all be working constructively, spending this downtime on something more worthwhile than writing film reviews.

But back to Elmer Gantry.  Lancaster is the best thing in it even though it features other heavy weights such as Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy and Shirley Jones.  But nobody is as vibrant as Lancaster and even though she does her best, it’s hard to think of Jones as a prostitute.  She just always appears way too wholesome.  And Simmons, whom I quite like in other films, just isn’t flamboyant–or something–enough.  The ending isn’t exactly over the top, it’s just kind of interesting to know that Sister Sharon (Simmons) is a true believer and that the powers that be, public opinion via the newspapers, will forgive a man of his sins, regardless if they’re true or not.  Unless you like to think he deserves his possible fall from grace for past discretions.

One day I was scanning the films on Kanopy and chose a movie from 1962 called The Quare Fellow.  The star was Patrick McGoohan of “The Prisoner” fame and it takes place in Ireland.  It’s about a newly hired prison guard who has to deal with the controversial stories of the criminals he oversees, with many like the quare fellow who’s been put on death-row.  What is a salacious secret then doesn’t affect us in quite the same way now, but understanding that shouldn’t make it less believable when watching films from other eras—and countries.  We accept that the secret we learn as to why the quare fellow (someone we never see) may have killed his brother is a solid reason why a person would lie.  Most of the scenes took place in a prison and some other indoor sets such as a rooming house or pub, but at the start of the film when McGoohan is heading to the prison for his first day on the job, I could recognize Dublin.  I had just been there the previous summer and it was amazing how so little of the architecture had changed.  As well, it was kind of like watching a foreign language film since I was forced to turn the subtitles on due to some of the characters’ dialect being so thick, it was impossible to grasp what they were saying.

At one point, I felt like watching something funny and remembered that I had enjoyed The Wedding Singer (1998) with Adam Sandler when I saw it a few months earlier, albeit on commercial television, hence ads every 5 minutes.  I have no idea why, but I ended up choosing I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) which I recalled receiving terrible reviews and leaving me with the thought that the theme would be homophobic.  Well, it was anything but.  It was funny and kind of sensitive, certainly more so to gay people than it was to women.  Not that I found it terribly offensive, it’s just that at first all women are young, nubile creatures without much else going for them…and they all want Chuck (Sandler), which in itself is kind of funny even if Sandler can be endearing.  It’s the story of two firefighter friends who, when Larry becomes a widower, come up with a plan to pretend they are a gay couple so as to receive spousal benefits.  It also features Jessica Biel and there’s a cute joke about her hubby Justin Timberlake, although they weren’t married yet at the time of this film.  Anyway, because of this, I rewatched The Wedding Singer, minus commercials, and tried to watch Mr. Deeds but gave up after about 20 minutes finding it way too unfunny.  If you think you want to watch the latter film, its worth going back in time and watching Frank Capra’s 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur.  At some point, I watched my last Adam Sandler film, Click (2006), with a beautiful Kate Beckinsale, featuring Christopher Walken, Henry Winkler and Julie Kavner.  Instead of a cameo or small role with Steve Buscemi, this film utilized his other friend, Rob Schneider.  Basically this is a story about not wishing your life away.

I could go on, but I think I’ve had enough of this for now and will write about other films I watched another day, similar to this day.

4 thoughts on “FILMS I WATCHED IN 2020, THE YEAR OF OUR PANDEMIC: PART 2

  1. MS. 45 and THE SILENT PARTNER are classics in my mind. Not kidding, I think of THE SILENT PARTNER every time I see a jar of jelly. I’m slowly getting watching all the Frankenheimer films, so I’ll be getting to BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ soon.

    • Now that you’ve put it into my head, I may think the same thing every time I see a jar of jam! (I know what that’s like though, as I think of someone who died about a year ago every time I peel eggs.)

      I never even mentioned that Frankenheimer was the director of that great film! I certainly haven’t seen all of his, but a number of those that I have seen–THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, as you well know, SECONDS, even the rather odd REINDEER GAMES–are all so worthwhile. He definitely had a penchant for the psychological. Unfortunately I don’t own a copy, but my late friend Gerald Pratley had met him and published the book “The Cinema of John Frankenheimer”.

  2. Saw all except Moon of Israel and how odd that I had just brought it up to you. And also….never seen the Chris Plummer film. On a private note….I have to ask you privately about you living in NY ? You mean we could have met a decade before we met ? You must have been a kid !

    • I find at times our movie-viewing world is full of coincidences and there are always connections such as an actor in one film appearing in a film we were just discussing.

      Anyway, yes I lived in NY in the mid to late 80s, for around 2 years. I wasn’t a kid, of course, but sometimes I felt like one 🙂

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